8 Formidable Fighters of the Hellenistic Period | History Hit

8 Formidable Fighters of the Hellenistic Period

Roman cinerary urn depicting spoils of war, first half of 1st century AD.
Image Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain

The Hellenistic period was one of warlords wielding insatiable ambitions, the kind of men Plutarch described as “ever naturally at war, envying and seeking advantages of one another” and “whose ambition neither seas nor mountains, nor unpeopled deserts can limit, nor the bounds dividing Europe from Asia confine their vast desires.”

Consequently, throughout this remarkable age, wars and battles were constant: from the plains of Iran, to the steppes of the Siraces and the fertile plains of Southern Italy. Generals and warlords cultivated formidable reputations, as did their elite warriors – many becoming the most feared fighters of their age.

Here are 8 formidable fighters from this extraordinary period of history.

1. Tarentine cavalry

Tarentine horsemen armed themselves with two javelins, a round shield and a light spear or sword. Expert light cavalry, their greatest assets were their speed and the ability to rain deadly javelins on their foe from a safe distance.

Being highly-sought after, these Tarentines became a key component of Hellenistic armies following the death of Alexander the Great. Records survive of various warlords recruiting units of Tarentines to aid them in several exotic ventures.

Terracotta relief of a horseman, Greek, South Italian, Tarentine, 4th century BCE.

Image Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain

The formidable one-eyed warlord Antigonus, for example, hired 2,300 Tarentine mercenaries at the start of his intrepid campaign against Eumenes. They would go on to play highly-active roles for the Antigonids at battles such as at Paraetacenae and Gabene in Iran, and at Gaza in Palestine.

Scholars have long debated whether the mercenary Tarentine cavalry consisted solely of Tarentine citizens during the Hellenistic period. Many discount this: they claim ancient scholars only label these skilled light cavalrymen as Tarentines because they espoused a style of fighting that had originated from the Italiote-Greek city when it was in its prime in the mid-fourth century BC.

Nevertheless, Tarentine coinage depicting these elite horsemen continues down into the late 3rd century BC. It suggests that some mercenary contingents of Tarentine cavalry still came from that Italote-Greek city. These cavalrymen remained an integral part of Tarentum’s identity throughout much of the Hellenistic era.

2. The Silver Shields

The nucleus of Alexander the Great’s army were his Macedonian infantrymen and the greatest of these footmen were his hypaspists. From the Battle of the Granicus to Alexander’s return to Babylon, these men remained central to his great victories.

Their loyalty was so vital to the Macedonian monarch that he honoured the hypaspists highly. During his bloody Indian campaign Alexander renamed these elite warriors the argyraspides, or ‘Silver Shields’, after the new silver-coated shields he had provided. By the time of Alexander’s death these grizzled veterans were the most feared soldiers in the world. These were the men who had gained Alexander his empire.

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During the early years of the Wars of the Successors these men served a key role winning battles, most famously for Eumenes during his famous set of engagements against Antigonus.

Antigonus eventually eradicated the Silver Shields following the climactic Battle of Gabene in early 316 BC. Believing them more trouble than they were worth, he sent them to the harsh mountainous region of Arachosia, where hostile mountain tribes slowly picked off Alexander’s remaining veterans – a harsh end for the soldiers who created the Macedonian Empire.

3. The Agrianians

Expert assault infantry, the Agrianians were a tribe located at the top of the Strymon Valley (modern day Southern Bulgaria). Lightly-armed with javelins and a sword, these men were a key supporting unit for Alexander the Great throughout all his campaigns.

They were experts at fighting in both mountainous and uneven terrain – something Alexander’s heavy Macedonians were ill-equipped for. Truly they were one of Alexander’s greatest units.

Depiction of the Companion Cavalry from Marshall Monroe Kirkman’s History of Alexander the Great (1913)

Image Credit: Public Domain

4. Companion cavalry

Personally led by Alexander the Great in battle, Alexander’s Companion cavalry or ‘hetairoi’ were the attacking arm of his Macedonian army, tasked with landing the critical hammer blow in many of his victories. They were primarily equipped with the light, two-metre-long xyston lance and acted as shock cavalry.

For their armour the Companions equipped themselves with a cuirass made of either bronze or leather. They also wore metal greaves and a gorget, both usually made of bronze. Their helmet was the famed Phrygian helmet made of iron. Later however, around the time of Alexander’s accession, it appears they replaced this helmet-style with the more suitable Boeotian style.

The Companions may have equipped themselves with a small shield during the reign of Philip II – similar to the pelta of the Macedonian infantrymen. If this was the case, it appears these elite horsemen had discarded it by the time of Alexander’s crossing into Asia in 334 BC.

During the Wars of the Diadochi that followed Alexander’s death, the term ‘hetairoi’ remained for their elite Macedonian cavalry forces. Initially the Companions comprised only Macedonians, but Alexander later incorporated Iranian nobles into its ranks – this practice was carried on by many of his Successors.

Archer, possibly Odysseus, depicted on terracotta oinochoe (jug), circa 430–420 BCE.

Image Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain

5. Cretan archers

Rather than embrace the hoplite tradition of their mainland Greek counterparts, Crete’s rugged landscape meant its inhabitants prioritised the bow as their weapon of choice. As the mainland Greeks irrationally regarded archery with disdain, the Cretans soon became some of the most feared archers in the Hellenic World.

For centuries, Greek and Roman armies recruited these crack bowmen as mercenaries to compliment their armies. Cretan archers also equipped themselves with a sword and a small, bronze pelta shield to provide them some protection if it came down to hand to hand fighting.

6. Carthaginian Sacred Band

Carthaginian armies are notable for almost always resorting to local mercenaries rather than depending on an expensive standing army. So long as they kept the money flowing, these hired professional soldiers were more than a match for most opposing armies. Occasions where Carthaginian citizens fought among the army’s ranks were thus scarce. There was however, one exception: the Sacred Band.

Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps, 1870 depiction.

Image Credit: The New York Public Library / Public Domain

The Sacred Band were the Carthaginian army‘s elite infantry force. It consisted solely of high-tier Punic citizens equipped with the best arms and armour money could buy. They fought as hoplites, armed with spear, sword and shield, and were deployed in the centre of the Punic infantry line.

Although formidable fighters, they are best known through their destruction suffered at the hands of Siceliote-Greek forces on two occasions: at Timoleon’s remarkable victory at the River Crimissus in 339 BC and Agathocles’ similarly surprising success against the Carthaginians at the Battle of White Tunis 29 years later.

7. Triarii

For much of the Roman Republic, no soldier was more formidable in the Roman army than the triarii. Equipped with a hasta spear and hoplon shield, these men were trained to fight in similar fashion to the Greek hoplite.

It was their individual experience and skill, however, that made these men stand out. They were the hardened veterans in a Roman legion – the last line of soldiers in the Polybian manipular system. A saying soon emerged that if the Romans were casting their last die to win a battle, they were ‘going to the triarii’.

8. The Galatians

In 279 BC a new threat descended on the Hellenic World from the north in the form of a massive Celtic invasion. Years of turmoil ensued, during which the Celts shook the Greek world to its core, leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake.

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Eventually many of the migrating Celtic warbands established their own kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean. The farthest east of these was the kingdom of Galatia, situated in the heart of modern day Turkey. Trained for war since childhood, the Galatians were overwhelming on the battlefield: large, ferocious, skilled with the blade and a terrifying prospect for any luckless soldier who had to face them.

Galatian warriors were thus in high demand as mercenaries throughout the eastern Mediterranean. They were often recruited to compliment Hellenistic armies, especially the forces of the Successor Kingdoms: the Seleucids and Ptolemies mainly. If they were not helping them however, the Galatians were usually fighting them.

Tristan Hughes